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Saturday, June 18, 2011




History is not about to repeat itself

History does not repeat itself except in the minds of those who do not know history

Khalil Gibran

The Arab Spring is frequently compared to the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring and such events in Eastern Europe. By association it's exciting expectations of a similar outcome, namely, that liberal democracy and prosperity are on the verge to triumph in the Middle East. As one who both was exposed to the anti communist dissidence in Eastern Europe and is following closely the so called Arab Spring, let me state it in the most clear terms possible: The Arab Spring resembles East European anti Communist movements only to those who either have no idea what it was like in Eastern Europe, or have no idea what the Arab Spring is about, or both.

Basically, the prospects of the Arab Spring vary from country to country. The one that holds most promise in my view is Tunisia. Egypt is already on the border of hopelessness. The rest are disasters waiting to happen. In fact, Eastern Europe has also had very different transitions from the Communist rule. Not all of them were as inspirational as the Berlin Wall. In this sense, if the general Arab Spring resembles something, it's some kind of a hybrid between Yugoslavia, Romania and Kyrgyzstan. The last one is not exactly Eastern Europe but is illustrative as a Muslim former Soviet republic. And the hybrid example is not meant to say that the Arab Spring combines the best of the afore mentioned transitions, but rather their worst parts. From now on when I say Eastern Europe, it would mean by understanding only success stories such as Poland, the Baltic states or Czechoslovakia.

The first difference between the Arab Spring and Eastern Europe lies in the fact that the most impressive East European anti Communist uprisings did not happen as an act of desperation. It's not that people in those countries did not have expectations for a better economic future, or did not pin hopes on free market economy as a way to catch up with the West. But these uprisings were not carried out by hungry people who were driven to the edge by pervasive abuse by security forces. Eastern Europe was not starved or abused into rebellion. In many places there was a genuine and long standing popular longing for a more open and liberal regime.

That's why neither Eastern Europe was chasing after its former communist rulers the style of the Middle East where revolutions often look like tribal vendettas against the elites and ruling parties. In many East European countries Communist parties have reformed and their new reincarnations became part of the political landscape. There was simply not enough bitterness and petty vengeance in Eastern Europe to unleash paranoid witch hunts and settling of scores which are rapidly becoming the staple of Arab Springs in the Middle East.

Two, these anti Communist movements were just as much anti Communist as they were pro Western. I mean they were usually both to the same degree. Whole generations of East European dissidents grew on badly jammed broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Liberty. The readiness with which Eastern Europe takes part in US military missions abroad, Poland provided the third largest contingent of forces in Iraq, goes well beyond short term alliances of convenience. It reflects the genuine sense of strategic partnership and ideological affinity many East European nations feel towards the US as the leader of the Western World. To adopt the Western political model and to be integrated into the West was the same thing for the leaders of anti Communist movements in Eastern Europe. East European revolutionaries would have been unlikely guests on the Guardian or al-Jazeera sites.

Compared to Eastern Europe, the Arab Spring is blessed with a certain schizophrenic quality. On one hand, the revolutionaries basically want to adopt democracy, a model of society that originated, matured in and is promoted by the West. On the other hand, the bulk of revolutionaries remain deeply suspicious, if not outright hostile, to the West. The Western political model is good, but the West itself is bad, neocolonialist and imperialistic.

Shortly after the Arab Spring hit Egypt, Wikileaks published a series of leaks that revealed that the US was actually constantly pressuring Mubarak behind the scenes to liberalize the political system in Egypt. In fact, it transpired from the leaks that the US was funding and training Egyptian activists. These leaks even inspired certain conspiracy theories about America orchestrating the revolution in Egypt. It's noteworthy that these leaks were ignored or downplayed by the Egyptian opposition, even though they provided a perfect opportunity for both sides to mend their relations. The simple truth is that the Egyptian opposition, even the secular one, is simply not interested in such revelations because it shares the same paranoid anti Western mindset with the rest of the population.

One reason for this state of affairs is of course the simple fact that Eastern Europe may be Eastern, but it's still Europe. Another reason is that the West has changed since Eastern Europe. The Berlin Wall was facing the West of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, a very self confident and full of the sense of mission West. The Arab Spring was greeted by a very different, heavily demoralized and self hating West, which is crumbling economically and struggling to recover its sense of identity after decades of experiments with multiculturalism and other lunacies. Nevertheless, without a doubt the anti Western conspiratorial paranoia, which is an integral part of the Arab mentality in the Middle East, plays a role here as well.

Three. One thing that the whole Middle East and Libya in North Africa share with Yugoslavia and Kyrgyzia are impossible sectarian and tribal configurations and fragmentation. This makes creation of functional democratic societies in many countries impossible in principle. The Arab Spring is bound to make quite a few states disappear. Yet, it's not even this small technical detail that makes the Arab Spring so unlikely to transition to the Arab Summer. What the East European post Communist economic success stories like Poland and Estonia shared with each other was the elevated degree of enthusiasm for free markets and supply side economics. In some countries post Communist economic shock therapies were carried out with passion. There was an ideological counter reaction against Communism that in many quarters made the word socialism socially unacceptable.

The Arab Spring, on the other hand, is in part a reaction to the pains of the transition to market economy initiated by the Arab regimes during the last two decades. In some countries, the transition was obviously mismanaged and the reforms only partially implemented, but this is beyond the point. Market reforms are usually painful and it can take up to 2-3 years into the transition for the economy to finally take off. In the Arab World the transition to market economy was exacerbated by a simple demographic fact. Economically and socially the Arab World is currently reliving the peak of its demographic explosion that happened 20-30 year ago. As that generation is currently entering the labor market and searching for housing, the system frays. The pain, however, came to be habitually associated with the reforms and corruption. In the Middle East the notion of free market does not enjoy any particular popularity in revolutionary circles. But re-nationalization of already privatized industries can be quite a hit.

It's this anti capitalist and anti market populist streak of the Arab Spring that makes it so prone to turn into fiasco. The Arab World can afford no populist adventures right now because the demographic, and in some places plain Malthusian, pressures would quickly make the society explode and disintegrate. The primary reason that Tunisia is not as hopeless as the rest lies in the fact that its demographic situation is better. The number of new entrees on the labor market should soon start declining. The rest of the Arab World has at least another decade of pain to go through. No socialist shortcuts are possible here. But expectations of such shortcuts are very much what the Arab Spring is about.

To put it short, history is unlikely to repeat itself and it's not the Prague Spring which is currently on rampage around the Middle East. I am sure this should be quite a devastating piece of news for those people who were foolish enough to let themselves get hooked on the notion of history endlessly going through the same boring routines. As a gesture of good will on my part, I invite these people instead to contemplate the image attached below. It's not about the Berlin Wall coming down in Cairo, but nevertheless it's still something which is definitely trying to repeat itself.



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